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The Reluctant Barista: Milk Frothing Madness

Milk Frothing TechniqueHow many how-to-froth-milk videos have you watched? They make it look so easy! While my espresso shots are really improving, I still have a hard time getting milk to the right consistency for a perfect latte. My lack of consistent consistency makes me a little grumpy…even mad. If frothing milk makes you grumpy too, then follow along as I try to de-mystify microfoam. It is time for FROTHING MADNESS!

First things first, while you can use the words froth and foam interchangeably, what we are after is the ever elusive microfoam. The manner in which milk is heated produces different results. Microfoam is smooth and velvety with a texture almost like wet paint because very tiny bubbles are incorporated evenly throughout the liquid. The foam I most often produce is heated milk with a bubbly volcano of erupted meringue dolloped on top. This is not microfoam.

The more you practice on one home espresso machine, the more you get to know the timing involved. This is one of my problems. I froth milk on different machines. Teri in customer service tried to console me. She said, “just when you thought you had steaming down on one machine, you try another machine and it steams totally different! …or someone changes your steam tip from a two-hole to a four-hole!” (Which totally happens around here but probably doesn’t happen at your house.)

You are probably familiar with the basics of milk frothing:

  • Start with a chilled stainless steel milk frothing pitcher and cold milk.
  • Submerge the steam wand, start to froth, then lower the pitcher until just the steam tip is submerged. The milk should move in a circular pattern.
  • Plunge the wand lower into the pitcher and continue to roll the milk.
  • Stop at your desired temperature.

While this sounds well and good, let’s explore how this works in real-life situations with three very different home espresso machines. Armed with some additional tricks from my barista friends, we can learn together!

Rocket EvoluzioneRocket Giotto EvoluzioneA heat exchanger espresso machine with a large 60oz boiler

Espresso machine repair tech, Bryan, gave me some great advice. First, whole milk froths best. Second, on a larger espresso machine like this one, plunge the wand a few seconds sooner than you think it will take. It only took 35 seconds to froth 6 ounces of milk to 165F. I found this out the hard way because at 40 seconds it was up to 170F and the milk smelled scalded. Because it happens so fast, it is hard to make adjustments. I grabbed a gallon of milk and kept trying until I got it just right.

Breville InfuserBreville InfuserA home espresso machine with a thermoblock

Matthew Hodson, a Seattle-area professional barista, shared this via Twitter “Experiment to find the spot where the milk and foam spin in a whirlpool and integrate. Only aerate briefly (count 1,2,3 quickly) and then spend the rest of the time integrating with the whirlpool.” It took 1:15 to get 6 ounces of milk to 165F. This was enough time to experiment with different adjustments. With some extra time and careful attention spent tilting and pivoting the frothing pitcher around the steam wand, this technique produced good results.

Saeco Via VeneziaSaeco Via VeneziaA single boiler with less than 8oz capacity

To get quality milk frothing from a smaller espresso machine requires every trick in the book. Make sure the espresso machine is on and pre-heated. Clear the steam wand (or in this case the panarello) into the drip tray until it is all steam with no water. Note where the air intake hole is on the panarello sleeve and keep it even with the level of the milk in the pitcher, not above or below. Froth one drink at a time, in this case 6 ounces took 1 minute to steam but was still very bubbly.

Lastly, Miranda in customer service told me you can try to “fix” milk frothing madness by softly tapping the frothing pitcher on the counter and swirling it in a circle repeatedly to try to eliminate big bubbles and incorporate the little bubbles back into the mix. Don’t try to re-heat or re-froth the milk. When all else fails keep these two important adages in mind,
1) Don’t cry over spilt milk
2) Tis a lesson you should heed, If at first you don’t succeed, Try try again.

Rocket Espresso Steam Tips

A Tea Lover in a Coffee World: Queen Mary Tea Room Review

After having our first snow last week and with the holiday spirit in the air, you can’t help but want to pop in a cozy tea room and warm up with a cup of cheer (aka tea).  With its sophisticated decor, the charming English-style Queen Mary Tea Room, owned by “Queen” Mary Greengo, makes for the perfect locale. I recently stopped by the University District-area store and, in an effort to slowly convert the rest of the crew into tea lovers, brought Kaylie along for the ride.Holiday Harvest Tea

Upon entering the Queen Mary Tea Room, we were seated next to the home of Princess, the tea room’s resident dove, who enjoys watching guests from her perch (I later found out her counterpart, Earl, a five-year-old pied dove, makes his home at the Queen Mary Tea Emporium down the street). I was curious to learn more about these feathered friends, so I asked Queen Mary’s Brand Ambassador, Michael Zaborowski, to tell me about their story. According to Michael, “Mary has always been a great lover of birds. She even has a Macaw and a Lovebird at home! They add to the elegance of the environment here, just as anywhere.” Both doves used to live at the tea room, but when Mary opened the Tea Emporium three years ago Earl was relocated there so he can greet guests with a coo as they enter the store.

Our table was decorated for the season, with miniature Christmas trees, a bowl of sparkling green, red and white sugar and beautiful floral bone china. After pouring over the menu of over 80 different teas from all over the world, Kaylie and I decided to select one of the special holiday teas. With six teas to choose from, we had a hard decision to make. However, in the end we decided upon Holiday Harvest, a flavored black tea described on the menu as being “infused with orange slices, cardamom pods, pink peppercorn, clove, cinnamon, coriander and apple pieces.” According to our server, this tea is a perennial favorite, so while the other holiday teas change every year, the Holiday Harvest is always featured.

The tea came in a pretty silver teapot and our server told us to steep the tea for three to four minutes.  So we flipped over the hourglass timer on our table and waited anxiously for the last grains of sand to trickle through the timer so we could try our tea.  The tea had a mild orange flavor, with a hint of spiciness and smelled like cloves, cinnamon and citrus. Kaylie described it best when she exclaimed, “This smells like Christmas! Like what Santa’s house at the North Pole would smell like.” We also got to sample the Roasted Chestnut tea (also flavored black tea), which had a very sweet smell (like a cinnamon roll) but a smoky, nutty taste.

Though the Holiday Harvest and Roasted Chestnut tea were very different, both of the teas were quite tasty. If you aren’t able to make to it Queen Mary Tea in time to try one of the limited-time Christmas teas, never fear, the shop does feature teas for different holidays as well. According to Michael, “Last February saw the ‘Romeo’s Raspberry Rose’ and March featured ‘Luck of the Irish Vanilla Cream’.”

sugar for teaAlthough I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Mary in person, I did get the opportunity to chat with her and Michael via email. Launched in 1988, Mary proudly admits that Queen Mary Tea Room is the oldest independently owned tea room in the United States.

Mary came up with the idea to create the tea room during one fateful lunch with friends. While all of Mary’s friends ordered coffee, she ordered tea, which Mary claims arrived “weak, watery and flavorless.” Thus, Mary adds, “The idea for the Queen Mary Tea Room was born. I want[ed] a place where guests fe[lt] warm and welcome to sit and enjoy the traditional tea experience with the best cup of tea they have ever had.”

While this incredible idea may have just been a passing fancy for some, Mary had the necessary skills to turn her dream into a reality. Prior to opening the tea room, Mary spent years as a banquet chef at a five-star hotel (she has a degree in culinary arts) and always had the desire to run her own business. Tea also comes naturally to Mary. A native of Seattle, which might as well be the coffee capitol of America, she has never had a cup of coffee in her life (neither had her mother and grandmother). But Mary’s background wasn’t the only sign the store was meant to be. Mary explains that she and her brother came up with the store name at the same time, on the same day. Mary says coming up with a layout for the store was equally painless, “The design just popped into my head and the vision came together in all of two minutes. I bought all of my kitchen equipment at auction and it all fit with only ¼ inch to spare.”

Whether you believe in things being kismet or not, one thing is for certain – Mary has created a unique and wonderful atmosphere. With tea and food designed to please everyone who enters, you certainly won’t find another tea room like Queen Mary (although Mary says customers keep requesting that she open another tea room elsewhere). Mary isn’t afraid to share her royal status either. If you ask, she or her staff will happily offer up tiaras for kids (and adults too!) to wear during birthday parties or other special occasions, allowing everyone a chance to be “queen” for the day.

How Did You Get That Awesome Coffee Job?

Joseph Robertson - Coffee Lovers MagWho: Joseph Robertson

Where: Online Publisher, Coffee Lovers Magazine

You have an interesting coffee job! How long has Coffee Lovers Magazine been around?

I launched Coffee Lovers Magazine December 9th, 2012. Prior to that I was a coffee marketing consultant. I realized there’s a lot of people out there who are passionate about coffee, but who haven’t had the pleasure of diving deeply into the world of coffee.

Where does one find Coffee Lovers Magazine?

Coffee Lovers Magazine is currently digital, available on iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch via iTunes. The magazine will soon be available on Android as well — Kindle is also on the horizon. One can simply go to

How often does the magazine come out?

Coffee Lovers Magazine is a monthly publication. I also tend to publish extra subscriber-only bonuses in between the primary publications. The digital magazine platform allows for a lot of flexibility and variety in what can be delivered. It’s really more than a traditional ‘magazine.’ We simply use that term because it is easy to relate with the idea of a ‘magazine.’  It is a periodical publication, but with interactive elements giving a much greater ability to connect people with ideas and other people.

How did you get so into coffee?

I remember getting into coffee through Starbucks, and at a certain point thinking to myself, ‘I should really check out these smaller cafes and see what this is all about.’ The only problem was I had no idea where to start. I think that it can be intimidating to approach an independent cafe when you honestly don’t know what you want (and this isn’t your fault). I would find myself going to a new cafe (and I still do this sometimes), approaching the counter and when the barista says, ‘what can I get you?’ my response would usually be ‘Uhhhhhhhh…uhhhhh…errr……’

I think there’s a great desire for something more fulfilling than simply a sugary latte. I also know that the industry of coffee is so complex, with so many people who care so much about this thing that I think people deserve to understand the complexity of the experience that they are having.
Coffee Lovers Magazine
That’s also what it really comes down to — the experience of coffee. I had this realization shortly before creating the magazine: Coffee is not about coffee; it’s about the experience that you (the consumer) get with your coffee. It’s about taking that ‘coffee break’ with your co-workers, or meeting with friends, or stopping by for a morning cup. Coffee is a broad experience shared by people of many cultures around the world — there is great connection to be had in this simple drink. No matter what it may be, whether you prefer a latte loaded with milk and sugar, or if you prefer carefully prepared single origin espresso, I believe that our experience with coffee can only be made better by getting a deeper understanding of where the coffee comes from, and what it means to properly care for and handle this marvelous product.

I can have a drink and think, ‘hey, this roaster really loves what they are doing, they can be proud of this’ and I think that’s awesome. Just recently I visited Sterling Roasters in Portland; I had a cappuccino with their most recent espresso blend, and it tasted exactly like a hot cocoa (with nothing added!). That they can take these green coffee seeds, roast them, and prepare them in a way to basically give me a rich hot cocoa without dumping syrup and sugar into a drink — that is awesome. That is truly enjoying and understanding the full experience of coffee.

What’s your favorite coffee prep at home?

I have been preparing AeroPress for quite some time, but I’m actually drifting back to French press. If I had a proper espresso machine, I imagine I would enjoy espresso and occasionally a cappuccino. I typically just prefer to brew my coffee and enjoy it without adding anything.

What’s your favorite drink order when you visit cafes?

If it’s a new cafe I get either an espresso or cappuccino. I think the way a cafe prepares its espresso is really telling of the quality of that cafe. A place with passionate and engaged baristas who serve an obviously well prepared cup is a great place. There’s a tendency in Seattle to serve dark roasts. I would say Starbucks has created that consumer preference. If the coffee has been roasted too dark and burned, I’m going to taste it. Then I’ll know that I probably won’t enjoy the rest of their coffee menu.

For places that I frequent, it depends on my mood. If I’m planning to sit for long, I will order a brewed cup. At Milstead & Co., for example, I usually order an AeroPress. At Ballard Coffee Works, I like to get a siphon. Or, my decision will be based on which coffee sounds best (maybe the coffee on espresso sounds more appealing than the one on brew).

Are you or have you ever been a professional barista?


In your opinion, what makes a good…Coffee…Cafe…Roaster…Barista?

To all of the above: Passion and love for what you do.

If you could teach people one thing about coffee, what would it be?

Coffee drinks with nothing added (sugar, flavor, etc.) can be the most amazing experiences in the world when prepared right — give yourself the opportunity to have your world changed. Try new things. Enjoy the experience of exploring coffee.

The Reluctant Barista: What’s Up With Portafilters?

Saeco Via Venezia portafilter optionsFrom bean to cup, making espresso at home is poetry in motion. Nothing captures the essence of espresso better than a close up view of a streaming bottomless portafilter — a portafilter designed without spouts so that the bottom of the filter basket is visible. Bottomless, pressurized, non-pressurized … though they do the same job, they each do it a little differently. To get the most out of any espresso machine, let’s get to know the portafilter a little better.

First off, what exactly is a portafilter? Some people call just the handle portion portafilter and some people call the handle and filter basket combination portafilter. Some people also call it a portaholder, and that is a little weird, but we understand what you mean. Once the filter basket is filled with ground coffee, the portafilter can be locked into place inside the brew head of your traditional espresso machine. Locked and loaded! Now you are ready to pull espresso shots … If it were only that easy!

To illustrate the differences between types of portafilters, I chose the Saeco Via Venezia. It is a semi-automatic home espresso machine that comes with a pressurized portafilter. There is also a non-pressurized portafilter and bottomless portafilter upgrade available for it, so it makes a good example of how each portafilter works to create a different espresso experience. All three portafilters use the original included double filter basket. Here’s how they compare:

Saeco Via Venezia pressurized portafilterPressurized – The espresso flow is greatly restricted. When the pressure from the boiler combines with an added restriction, it literally spits the coffee out. The restrictive design can be part of the filter basket, part of the portafilter (the Via Venezia uses an additional gasket) or a spring between these two pieces.

Pressurized portafilters often come standard on entry-level espresso machines because they are easier to use for beginners. The coffee doesn’t have to be perfectly fresh, the size of the grind can have a little bit more variation and tamping is not necessary in most cases.

In exchange for this ease of use, the cleanup is messier because the leftover puck is wetter. It is hard to explain the taste difference but a pressurized shot will taste a little bland and homogenous when compared with a non-pressurized espresso shot. The crema produced is mainly a function of extra pressure and not an indicator of coffee freshness. It adds to the visual appeal but not the taste. However, if you are making milk-based drinks you will probably not notice these small differences.

Saeco Via Venezia non-pressurized portafilter upgradeNon-Pressurized – The 15 bar pressure from an espresso machine forces the water and steam through the filter basket. A good espresso extraction needs freshly ground coffee with a consistent particle size. It is also important to tamp evenly with the right amount of pressure so that water flows through in a uniform manner. If espresso flows out one side more than the other, it will still taste okay, but it might have had the potential to taste better with a more even tamp, or a more accurate dosage, or more consistently ground coffee. This is the point where you can seriously start to geek out about your espresso-making methodology!

Non-Pressurized portafilters are for home baristas ready for the challenge to manage variables manually. If you have an interest in crafting delicious espresso, you need a non-pressurized portafilter. This is especially true if you drink espresso, Americano coffee or a Cafe Macchiato. These are drinks where the character of the espresso is front and center compared to a latte or cappuccino where the espresso takes a backseat to ten ounces of milky goodness.

Bottomless – (Sometimes called a naked portafilter.) Usually, the spouts on the bottom of the portafilter direct the coffee as it streams out. Not so with a bottomless portafilter. As a learning tool for a home barista, the bottomless portafilter is a great way to check your progress. Saeco Via Venezia bottomless portafilterThe term ‘channeling’ refers to water that leaks through the puck unevenly due to poor distribution of grounds. Other reasons these crevasses occur can be due to an inconsistent grind, incorrect dosage or an uneven tamp. Any small error will result in random spurts and a messy espresso extraction with a bottomless portafilter. The barista can then take steps to fix one or more of these variables in the hopes of producing a cleaner (and better tasting!) shot.

Some say a bottomless portafilter will make a hotter shot since the espresso does not come into contact with a metal spout. This temperature difference is pretty negligible. It is easier to brew directly into a demitasse and it is easier to keep clean. But the main reason to use a bottomless portafilter is the visual cues it offers that can lead you to micro adjustments in timing, tamping and measurement.

About Filter Baskets – An E61 filter basket is 58mm across while the Via Venezia filter basket is 53mm across and DeLonghi tends to run about 51mm across. Sizes, shapes and hole patterns vary by manufacturer. There is no consensus on whether bigger is better or which proprietary hole pattern is better. The often frustrating thing for home baristas to keep in mind is that most portafilters and filter baskets are not interchangeable between brands. Even if they share the same size diameter, their profile shape will prevent a universal fit in the portafilter or brew head configuration of a different model espresso machine. When looking for a replacement or upgrade, double check compatibility first!

Along with the functional differences listed above, some portafilters are heavier, some are lighter weight and some may feel more balanced in your hand. The tactile sensation of the portafilter is important too. Will the portafilter be ergonomic for all household users? These are seemingly small details to consider when evaluating an espresso machine purchase but it will be part of your daily routine for years to come, so it’s best to shake hands and get to know your portafilter first!

A Tea Lover in a Coffee World: Floating Leaves Tea Review

Located on NW Market Street in Ballard, Floating Leaves Tea is one of the few teahouses in the greater Seattle area that focuses on selling only true teas. The shop’s owner, Shiuwen, hails from Taiwan, and primarily sells Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese teas. Most of the teas in the shop are seasonal, single-estate teas that Shiuwen sources herself on her yearly trip to Taiwan. In total, Floating Leaves Tea sells about 40 different kinds of tea, which are comprised of a lot of oolong, puerh, a few green teas and one or two white teas.

Floating Leaves Tea HouseShiuwen says that while selection of 40 different teas may sound small compared to shops that sell nearly a hundred different kinds of teas, she is intentionally selective about the teas she has in her shop. She works hard to find the best teas for her shop, only selling what she feels truly passionate about. It just so happens that she’s passionate about oolongs!

Upon my arrival in the shop, Shiuwen used a pretty blue and white gaiwan to brew me up a Baozhong Competition Style oolong. This lightly oxidized tea was refreshing and had a floral aroma and taste, which Shiuwen accurately described as ‘tasting like spring.’ As we continued to chat, Shiuwen brewed a second oolong called Taiwan Wuyi. It was a roasted oolong, featuring a smoky scent and a heartier, roasted nutty flavor that, Shiuwen explained, made it great for drinking in the cooler fall and winter months.

You don’t have to talk to Shiuwen long to tell that when it comes to oolongs (and tea in general), she really knows her stuff. Curious about how she became so knowledgeable about tea, I asked Shiuwen how she got into the tea business. Shiuwen explained that, growing up in Taiwan, tea is a huge part of the culture and was readily available. Although Shiuwen drank tea often as a teenager, the extent of her tea knowledge at the time was ‘tea is good.’ This is largely because tea is often brewed for you in Taiwan, so you don’t get to watch the brewing process.

In fact, Shiuwen didn’t really learn how to brew tea herself until she moved to America. One morning, she decided to make the tea for her and her former husband’s morning tea ritual. Not happy with the result, Shiuwen became curious about how to correctly brew tea and began visiting tea shops and asking the owners (as well as friends) for advice on brewing tea. Once she became comfortable with the process, she began serving tea regularly at parties. One day, one of her friends asked where they could buy the tea she was serving, and the idea for the business was born.

Floating Leaves Tea HouseShiuwen started the business by hosting tastings at her apartment, and then branched into doing tastings at events like art openings. Shiuwen opened her first shop in 2005, and then moved to her current location in 2008. Inspired by teashops and tasting rooms of Shiuwen’s native Taiwan, Floating Leaves Tea is a quaint little shop, with shelves full of ornate and beautiful tea ware and, of course, tea. Shiuwen adds that she wanted to ‘open a space where East and West meet, that was quiet, had a peaceful feeling and served good tea.’

Shiuwen’s ultimate goal is to be a ‘bridge between the culture in Taiwan and the culture in America.’ Luckily, her frequent visits to Taiwan to source teas for Floating Leaves Tea provide Shiuwen with the perfect opportunity to achieve this goal. While in Taiwan, Shiuwen is able to learn from and build relationships with tea farmers, tea roasters and tea wholesalers who have been in the industry for years. Shiuwen then strives to bring the knowledge and concepts she learns from these tea producers back to America and share them with her customers. Better yet, each year a few lucky customers get to travel with Shiuwen on this incredible journey, which allows them to visit three or four tea farms, and dine with and learn from the farmers themselves.

In addition, Shiuwen offers drop-in tea tastings on Thursdays through Saturdays from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. so people can sample and compare a couple of different teas to determine what they would like to buy. She also has more formal tea classes and even a tea club where people can learn about oolongs and puerh teas at a more advanced level. However, Shiuwen is not only interested in teaching advanced learners, but likes working with beginners as well. She says it is great when people reach out and contact her about setting up classes, and she is more than willing to host them as long as there will be at least two people attending. If you can’t attend class in person, Shiuwen has an abundance of helpful information on her site about how oolongs are processed, or even on how to roast tea yourself.

Shiuwen will also happily serve up a cup of tea to customers who wander in from the cold and chat with them about tea. Since Floating Leaves Tea is a niche shop, it draws in a lot of repeat customers, which Shiuwen loves connecting with. It is evident by the way Shiuwen’s eyes light up when she talks about her customers that this is the aspect of her business that she enjoys the most. In fact, she says that many of them have become good friends, who often come over to her house to visit. If you’re interested in learning a lot about tea and making a new friend (or two), this is definitely the teashop for you.

Barista Snapshot: Bethany at The Fresh Pot

bethany_hargroveWho: Bethany Hargrove, Barista

Where: The Fresh Pot, Portland, Oregon

We met you at the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship Open in Seattle last month. What’s it like competing?

Full disclosure: I only started competing this year. My first throwdown was last July. Competing is honestly kind of weird. It’s not really a replication of how latte art works in the cafe environment, but it’s so much fun. I love the chance to jam with other coffee people, talk (really enthusiastically) about great coffees and latte art techniques and espressos. Eighty percent of why I love competing is to hang out with coffee folks. The other twenty percent is, well, who wouldn’t love a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament but with milk and espresso?

What was the first coffee drink you remember tasting?

The only coffee in my house as a kid was swill (sorry dad,) so I didn’t really try coffee when I was young. I remember drinking sugary/milky drinks from Dutch Bros drive-throughs with my sister, but I didn’t really start drinking coffee in earnest until I started working with it in 2010.

What do you drink now at home?

When I’m just brewing for myself, I usually use a Kalita Wave with whichever delectable coffee I happen to have at the time (I’m particularly fond of juicy or citrusy coffees). If I’m sharing with my roommate or friends, the Chemex is my standby. I also have an AeroPress and a French press on hand in case the mood should strike me.

What do you drink at work, if different?

Everything! I love espresso. You can’t get more beautiful than the purity of a well extracted shot. But I also drink cappucinos, Americanos, pour overs, drip, you get the idea. Whatever fits my mood!

What’s cool about the Portland coffee scene?

In brief, the people. Portland has such a huge diversity of people in the coffee scene, from guys who’ve been slinging shots at Stumptown for a decade, to folks who’ve transplanted here from cities without good coffee for the sake of the coffee, to people who’ve been building relationships with coffee farmers, and everyone in between. Most people are really fun to hang out with, and obsessed with quality. I’m honored to be a part of such a brilliant community, honestly.

What are your thoughts on quality versus customer service skills?

As a friendly barista in Portland, a town (apparently) famed for bad customer service, I have encountered two very distinct attitudes: One, people assume that if someone is friendly, they don’t know how to make fantastic coffee; and two, people will avoid somewhere they perceive as snobby, willingly sacrificing quality for friendlier service. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for baristas to be friendly and skilled! Even the most delicious espresso in the world isn’t any fun if the barista isn’t willing to talk to you about it, and even the friendliest cafe experience in the world is no fun unless the espresso is delicious. And really, I consider my customer service skills to be equally as valuable as my coffee skills. Knowing how to read people and give them exactly the level of service they need and expect is hard, and just as much of an art as extracting delicious espresso.

Do you ever judge people by the drink they order?

I try really hard not to, but when someone orders a decaf at 9am…

If you could teach people one thing about coffee (or latte art), what would it be?

It’s worth it to invest some money in your coffee experiences — both beans and gear! But don’t necessarily assume that more expensive always equals better. Talk to your baristas, and your roaster if possible. Find out what’s delicious, and get a good home brewing set up! It’s worth every single penny.

The Fresh Pot in Portland, Oregon has three locations and if you’re lucky you will run into Bethany at one of them. She’s been pulling shots with them for a year and a half. Bethany can also be found competing in organized latte art competitions around the Northwest.

photos by Megan O'Connell
photos by Megan O’Connell


What is Tea Certification?

Tea CertificationYou may have heard recently that tea is rapidly increasing in popularity in America. In order to keep up with the trends, you might have considered adding tea to your cafe or store offerings, doing some research on tea to learn more about it or even taking classes to become a tea master or tea sommelier. However, since getting a tea certification is still a fairly new concept for most people, the phrases ‘tea master’ or ‘tea sommelier’ may leave you scratching your head, wondering what the programs entail or whether they are really worth the cost. To figure out what getting a tea certification is all about, we did our due diligence and took a class ourselves.

Who Should Get Certified as a Tea Master, Sommelier or Specialist?

Some of the folks that would benefit from this certification include:

  • Retailers or business owners that desire industry recognition or want themselves and/or their staff to have a deep knowledge of tea so they can increase their sales.
  • Owners of tea rooms or cafes who want advanced knowledge on how to serve tea and what to pair it with.
  • Wholesalers who are directly involved in buying or selling tea.
  • People in the food service or culinary industry, as well as those in the coffee and wine business (while they are very different beverages, there are similarities in how tea, coffee and wine are evaluated).
  • Tea growers or researchers.
  • Nutritionists, dieticians or other health care professionals who are interested in using tea to lead a healthy lifestyle.

However, getting a tea certification can also be helpful for people who are simply interested in tea or have a passion for it and would like to learn more about tea.

What is the Tea Certification Process?

Generally, the tea certification process begins by building a strong understanding of the Camellia sinensis plant and the six basic types of tea. Students learn how each type of tea is processed and produced, what differentiates each classification of tea and where and how the teas are grown. Tisanes and popular herbals like Rooibos, Yerba Mate and Honeybush are often also taught about during the class. The next step of a tea specialist’s education is usually learning about post-production processes such as naming and grading, decaffeination, blending, scenting and flavoring. The final part of becoming a tea master is discovering how to brew, taste and evaluate teas, as well as being able to create and host their own tea cuppings. Some programs also include lessons on pairing food with tea, the health benefits of tea, how to educate guests about tea or hosting specific types of tea ceremonies, while other organizations have these classes separated into additional, more advanced programs.

If you are interested in enrolling in a tea certification program, you are in luck, as there are several available in America (there are plenty of courses outside the United States as well). Depending on what program you enroll in, classes are offered either in-person, online or some combination thereof. Here are a few popular programs, and the certifications they offer:

Is Tea Certification Worth the Cost?

While there is no absolute guarantee that becoming a certified tea master or sommelier will secure you a job or increase your business, becoming more knowledgeable about the products you are selling or serving certainly can’t hurt. The more you know, the better you will be able to stock your store, pair tea with food in your cafe, educate your customers about tea and explain why it is a good option for them. If nothing else, by attending a class you will have gotten to see, learn about, taste and experiment with some new teas, and perhaps even connect with other people in the industry.

I recently attended James Nordwood Pratt’s Apprentice Tea Sommelier class at Coffee Fest, and while I thought I was decently educated about tea before, I found out there was a lot I didn’t know. I came out of the class with a greater appreciation for tea, and a head full of new fun facts, stories and information to share with my coworkers.

If you aren’t ready to shell out your hard earned cash for a tea class, you can also find a lot of written information about tea either online or in books. There are a number of tea professionals (such as James Norword Pratt, Robert J. Heiss, etc.) who have written informative books that can be found most libraries. In addition, there is a large and active online tea community with folks who are part of organizations like the Association of Tea Bloggers, who review and write about tea regularly. There are also several forums such as Steepster and Tea Trade where people can ask questions and share information with fellow tea lovers. Finally, some tea retailers like Adagio Teas have extensive information on tea that is helpful for beginners and advanced learners alike.

$20 Thrift Shop Challenge – Coffee Edition

thrift shop coffee cupsSeattle is home to the singer Macklemore and his song ‘Thrift Shop’ was the theme for a really fun and unique birthday party I attended. The birthday party activity was a thrift shop challenge: Who can find the best present at Goodwill for under $20? With a tight budget and 45 minutes to shop, it was a great reminder that it really is ‘the thought that counts.’ We spent quality time together, had fun and didn’t spend much money.

This led me to wonder: Is a twenty dollar thrift store coffee challenge possible? I studied the aisles of previously owned houseware products to see which types of coffee accoutrements are commonly found. Based on SCG experience, here are my top tips for what thrift shop coffee items to try — and, possibly more essential, which items to avoid.

Storage – Yes!

Whether you use whole coffee beans or ground coffee, proper storage will help your coffee stay fresher and taste better. As coffee beans age they become harder and stale, the oils oxidize and can add a bad taste to the brewed cup. The best way to store coffee is in a cool, dark and dry place. Airtight storage is ideal and while decorative ceramic canisters are easy to find, make sure to select one with a tight fitting lid. Once the coffee is opened and stored, use it within 30 days for best taste.

Cups – Oh Yes!

Cups are easy to inspect for visible damage prior to purchase and easy to clean. This is the best coffee item to find at a thrift store because it shows your individuality at home or at work. I attended a wedding where thrift store coffee mugs served as the place cards on the tables. Each mug was specially selected by the bride and groom. Mine had my home state on it, which made it a very special memento of the day.

Drip Coffee Maker – No

I purchased a ‘vintage’ mini drip coffee maker for 4.99 to see if it worked. There are two factors to consider when making a delicious cup of drip coffee: Temperature and evenness of how the coffee grounds are wet. Expensive coffee makers have boilers that ensure the water is around 200F/93C for the entire brew process, which is in the ideal temperature range. Some also have fancy shower heads to evenly wet all of the coffee grounds in the filter basket. This creates an ‘even extraction’ which is necessary for the best tasting cup of coffee possible. After using coffee care products to clean and descale the internals, the little mini drip still didn’t work great. A better value for the same price is a new manual cone dripper. These simple cones are made out of plastic, metal, ceramic or glass and require a kettle and a filter. With this method, it’s you — not the coffee maker — that makes sure the water is the right temperature and all of the coffee grounds are evenly wet. Talk about quality control!

Espresso Maker – Maybe

A very traditional style stovetop espresso maker can often be found second-hand. This is a tried and true method for making delicious espresso coffee at home. There are two pieces that screw together with a small basket and a gasket in between. Inspect the unit to make sure there are no dents, that the pieces screw together easily and the gasket is intact. Replacement gaskets are available too. Most of these stovetop espresso makers are made out of aluminum, some are made out of stainless steel and they also come in different sizes. Make sure you are getting a good deal second-hand because you can also find some for less than twenty dollars brand new. Stay away from semi-automatic and superautomatic espresso machines unless you are a repair pro and you have access to replacement parts.

Other Coffee Brewing Methods – Depends

French press, cone drippers, immersion brewers, AeroPress, cold brew pots, Turkish coffee, the list of fancy coffee brewing methods goes on and on…These are all fun (and tasty!) manual methods of making coffee and espresso. Many of these ideas are under twenty dollars new, so make sure you are check the quality before you try one second-hand.

stove top


Scary French Press Experiments for Halloween

experimentWith (seemingly) unlimited access to great coffee and espresso making equipment comes great responsibility. In this spirit, Seattle Coffee Gear tests out the things we hear on the gear we have, mainly so you don’t have to … Sure, we made eggs with an espresso machine steam wand.  What more? This week, the interwebs inspired us to try three more truly crazy coffee experiments. Insert mad (coffee) scientist laughter here [muah hahaha]!!!

Coffee and Beer

This is a natural partnership in the beverage world. If you enjoy beer and coffee, there are plenty of coffee porters and espresso stouts available in specialty shops. But what if you want beer-flavor coffee instead of coffee-flavored beer? This question occurred to our Instagram friend one morning when he combined Young’s Double Chocolate Stout with Starbucks Pike Place medium roast and Bailey’s hazelnut coffee creamer in a mug. Sadly, he did not find the combination delicious. So we picked up where young Mister Alves left off … oh yeah, we brewed a French press with boiling beer instead of boiling water.

The recipe: French press, 32oz Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Arctic Rhino Coffee Porter heated almost to boil (at boiling it goes to a huge fizzy mess so monitor the situation carefully if you try this at home and use a saucepan that will hold double your initial volume for safety sake and, heck, while you’re at it put on some Kareem Abdul Jabbar-style safety goggles) and 62 grams Velton’s Twilight blend coffee. 4 minute steep, then plunge.

The results: It tasted like warm beer, the coffee essence was not pronounced. Bummer.

Coffee and Coconut Water

If it looks like water will it perform like water? This was the rationale behind our next experiment. In truth we thought we had a fair chance that this would turn out to be a taste sensation. Some folks have experimented with heated milk or soy milk as a water substitute also but in all cases the flavor did not extract well because the proteins and sugars get in the way.

The recipe: French press, plus we gurgled a 32oz carton of Vita Coco coconut water into a saucepan and brought it to a boil. Then we added 62 grams Velton’s Twilight blend coffee. 4 minute steep, then plunge.

The results: When refrigerated, coconut water doesn’t have a very distinctive taste, but heated, regrettably, it turned very sweet. The coffee flavor was barely there, it was as if someone had spilled the whole sugar bowl into a single cup of coffee.

Coffee and Chicken Broth

Ripped from the headlines! The single cup coffee brewer market is being taken by storm and by chicken noodle soup capsules. I took an informal survey of friends and family members who admitted to owning Keurigs, and my suspicions were confirmed: Not one of them had ever cleaned or descaled their little dudes. Why does their coffee taste bad? Many reasons, and now chicken soup is one. So to drive home the point that it doesn’t matter how you make your coffee, you have to keep your equipment clean, I made a French press with boiling chicken stock instead of boiling water.

The recipe: French press, 32oz Pacific Natural Foods Organic Free Range Chicken Broth heated to a simmer, 62 grams Velton’s Twilight blend coffee. 4 minute steep, then plunge.

The results: This approach was too concentrated. The chicken flavor predominated the combination and it was so strong it was hard to try even one sip. Gross!


After three failed experiments in a row, did I give up? No! In a stroke of genius inspired by too many episodes of the televised cooking contest Chopped, I combined all three results into one carafe. Surprisingly, this created a very wacky yet drinkable cup. In fact, it may already be invented and available for sale in an international vending machine somewhere. If it is not, feel free to pitch the idea yourself — now you have the recipe!

PS. Because Bunny would kill me if I wasted all of that nice Velton’s Coffee, I browned some ground pork, added some beans and New Mexico green chile and made a delicious chili con carne for dinner.

coffee beer chili with coconut water and chicken broth

A Tea Lover in a Coffee World: Remedy Teas Review

Remedy TeasWith fog lingering in the air, and Halloween just around the corner, what better time than the present to stop by Capitol Hill’s Remedy Teas, which is styled like a trendy science lab? Upon entering, you’ll find five rows of good-sized white canisters, numbered from 1 to 150 in black print behind the counter, which contain the cafe’s selection of organic loose-leaf teas (which can be brewed by teapot, to go, iced or purchased in bulk). To the right, along one of the store’s walls, you will find a long row of test tubes (each also numbered) that provides customers with the opportunity to smell and see each tea up close.

In keeping with the apothecary feel, there are flasks scattered around the store filled with flowers and various potions. There is plenty of seating as well, with white ottomans, several wood tables and a bar area. Anthony, one of the store’s owners, said the design was inspired by the desire to create a shop that combined the elements of a traditional cafe and tea store where “the focus is on the tea and the customer.”

However, the store’s menus are not to be outdone by its design — there is not one, but two menus! One menu is dedicated entirely to the store’s tea selection and includes a detailed description of each tea’s ingredients and flavors. With too many tantalizing teas to try in one visit (yes, I will be going back!), my mouth was watering from just looking at the menu. The second menu is the food and mixed drink menu, featuring tea smoothies, tea lattes, tea sandwiches, soups, salads and even full tea services if you want to partake in “high tea.”

After pouring over the menu, I selected a teapot of a flavored white tea blend called the “Blue Hawaii,” which is described as, “A sinfully good blend of white teas, coconut, natural essences, vanilla pieces and blue cornflowers. It’s aloha in your cup.” Prior to my visit, Anthony had mentioned that one of the store’s most popular foods was the Apple Pie tea sandwich. The Cucumber Classic tea sandwich also caught my eye, so I decided to round out my order with half of a unique apple sandwich, and half of a more traditional cucumber one.

My order arrived in a cute personal glass teapot that was kept warm by a tea light candle, a pre-set timer for my tea (which flashed when the tea was done steeping), a metal holder for the tea filter and a Bodum double wall glass. This glass also happens to be one of my favorite tea cups at work since it allows me to make my tea as hot as I want without burning my fingers. It also keeps my tea hotter, longer, because of its double-walled insulation.

The tea produced a light yellow liquor that smelled and tasted heavenly, like vanilla and coconut. Both the sandwiches were tasty as well. The Apple Pie sandwich (apple butter, melted cheddar cheese and butter spread served on cinnamon bread dusted with cinnamon) was sweet and slightly salty, while the Cucumber Classic sandwich (cucumbers, chive cream cheese and butter spread on whole grain bread garnished with chives) was zesty and creamy. As Anthony had mentioned, you really can’t go wrong with the food here and it’s no wonder all the teas are popular.

It is clear that Anthony and Andrea (Anthony’s partner at Remedy Teas) truly love their tea and want to share that passion and knowledge with their customers. Anthony explained that the first teas he ever drank were “terrible bagged black tea, poorly prepared and over-brewed. Hence, one of the reasons we created Remedy Teas. [We wanted to provide people with] excellent organic loose leaf teas of every kind, [that are] well prepared, good for you and tasty.”

Remedy TeasThis November will mark the seventh year the café has been in business, and based on how busy the store was when I visited, they certainly have met Anthony’s goal of “tak[ing] the fussy out of tea and present[ing] tea to [people] in a modern approachable way.” While I was in their shop, Andrea came over with a huge smile and pointed out a toddler who had tried and enjoyed her first cup of tea (which was very cute). According to Andrea, moments like this one, where she gets to interact with the happy, creative and fun clientele of Capitol Hill, are the best part of running the store.

Anthony and Andrea have created the perfect venue to escape the standard black teas and try a variety of healthful teas. Anthony says he now “prefer[s] a fine Japanese green tea, but every member of the team tends to drink different teas throughout the day depending on whatever [they’re] craving; traditional tea or something non-traditional, caffeinated or non caffeinated, something to settle your tummy or help you sleep, something spicy or floral, something calming or energizing — it’s tea time all the time honestly.”